Saying someone is ‘emotional’ is usually meant as something of a criticism, but the truth is humans would never have evolved if we didn’t have emotions. They have played an indelible, irreplaceable role in our evolution as a species, and in the development of our societies. While emotions such as love and fear are bedrock for anyone’s psyche, I would argue that anger has been the single most formative emotion in human nature, for good and ill. You may even recognize that it’s played a fundamental role in your own life. But what are emotions, and what is anger?
For the TL;DR crowd, emotions are the answer to the problem of monitoring our unconscious goals such as for security, attention, and affection. They do this by helping us maintain our status in our groups.
Before we even reach school age we learn what unconscious goals to pursue, and what counts as dangerous and helpful to ourselves and our goals. Our emotional capability allows us to make quick appraisals that allow us to be instantly aware of seeming threats and benefits, and it motivates us to attend to them.
Our emotional system is built to be able to totally bypass our prefrontal cortex, the seat of our most advanced, (but also slow and laborious), cognition, if need be. This is what lets us respond immediately to specific events that demand action. Another strength is that there is a feedback loop that allows for useful connections between our internal organs (“guts”), our memories, and our lightning-fast emotional appraisals. But we need to practice using this to our advantage.
It can be very hard to halt the urge to act on our initial appraisal, leading us to act poorly with respect to our goals. Improved self-awareness, of our current mental states and thoughts, but also of our underlying goals and tendencies, allow us the ability to pause for a bit when we have emotions or moods. This pause allows for deeper consideration which can get us to a more beneficial course of action.
Speaking of moods – they stem from our beliefs about ourselves, our goals, and how we appraise what the situation we’re in ultimately means.
So, what about anger? At its core, anger is an evolutionary response to being blocked or thwarted. In humans, this basic core expands to also help us monitor a specific sort of thwarting, having our status in our group(s) being lowered.
As fundamentally social animals capable of creating meaning, we are highly attuned to the goal of keeping up appearances. Anger helps us with this task by motivating us to punish or avenge slights with minimal information, aggressively, and in a hurry. Anger does its appraisal work via a three-part checklist: 1) Is there a real or potential harm to me? 2) I know the specific person or agent that is the cause of that harm, and 3) If I act aggressively I can stop or fix the harm.
But keeping up our status is not just about having a nice home or clothing, though it is that sort of thing too. Rather, not being lowered is about feeling that our social group welcomes and respects us. Humans don’t do well truly isolated even in the 21st century – see how eager people seem to be to face Covid without a vaccine or cure – and this was even more true in the murky past where our species evolved. We do quite well as members of groups such as families, friend groups, and sometimes even meaningful larger groups than that. So we developed anger to protect ourselves from such a devastating loss.
Another often great thing about anger is that it doesn’t stop at your skin. From childhood on we learn to care about and for others, and to take on values and identities. Anytime these things are in play we are liable to have an emotional reaction. On the good side, it might lead you to protest social injustice, such as with the Black Lives Matter movement. On the bad side, the same mechanism in large part explains how people who are being actively screwed over by Donald Trump continue to vociferously defend him.
That there are often terrible outcomes from anger does not mean anger is bad. Rather, it means that we need to fully take responsibility for this great weapon by knowing why we are angry, and especially whether our beliefs are correct.
So that’s the theme of anger, and all the emotions have their own theme. Your emotions are tailored to what you’ve learned from early on about who you are, and what should be your short and long term goals. (I go over the themes of other emotions in other posts.)
With all this in mind, the next time you’re angry take a breath or two. Ask yourself to say what seems like it is attacking or might hurt your status, or the status of beliefs and connections you value. Really consider whether you’re in a threat situation. It is natural to be very sensitive to potential threats, which makes us vulnerable to seeing threats that aren’t there. If you can actually identify a threat and who the threat is, ask yourself whether you can actually right now do anything productive about it. Productive means beneficial, not illegal, and hopefully not very dangerous.
If you can do all this, anger can be your best friend. But if anger is often turning out to be your enemy, it is likely a good idea to do some therapy. Just ask Professor Hulk!
The discussion above comes from my study of one of my psychological heroes, Richard Lazarus. Reading his book Emotion and Adaptation helped me begin my quest of connecting philosophy and psychology in a more thorough and meaningful way than the now-common use of stoicism in therapy. If you’re interested in learning more about Lazarus’ theory, I recommend picking up Passion and Reason; his wife and he wrote it to be a readable explanation of his theory.
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